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A Gate at the Stairs

Family, race, and religion mingle in Lorrie Moore's incisive coming-of-age novel about a college girl disillusioned by what she sees of adult life.

By Yvonne Zipp / September 18, 2009

Some writers defy classification. Lorrie Moore is one. Here she has been masquerading for more than a decade as one of the finest short story writers in North America, when in fact, she’s an even better novelist. (And for someone frequently cited just after Alice Munro in the pantheon of the brief-and-brilliant, that’s saying something.)

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Her first book in 11 years, A Gate at the Stairs, is similarly difficult to pin down. On the surface, it’s a sharply observed coming-of-age novel about Tassie Keltjin, a bright Midwestern farm girl for whom college offers a liberating taste of the cosmopolitan. (For Tassie, Chinese food qualifies as exotic.) Tassie’s outwardly meek nature conceals a perceptive intelligence, but Tassie might not be quite as sophisticated as she thinks reading Sylvia Plath has made her. Moore uses Tassie’s precocious yet naive eyes to take a deep look at the roles of race, family, and religion in America, while managing to be more profound about 9/11 than such luminaries as John Updike and Ian McEwan.

In December 2001, Tassie, whose dad grows tiny, egglike organic potatoes for yuppies and whose mom loathes her role as a farm wife, is looking for a job as a nanny and losing her illusions about adulthood at the same time. “These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly, walking sort of sleep,” Tassie says of her prospective employers.

She is hired by Sarah Brink, who dresses like Marie Curie and talks like, well, a character from Moore’s 1998 collection, “Birds of America.” Her laugh, for example, is “a quasi laugh, a socially constructed laugh – a collection of predetermined notes, like the chimes of a doorbell.” Sarah runs an upscale restaurant that serves quenelles and timbales – foods Tassie has never tasted, but that “sound like instruments.” The Brinkses are in the process of adopting a child, and Tassie accompanies Sarah on a series of awkward interviews with birth mothers before the Brinkses adopt a biracial toddler named Mary.

Meanwhile, at home on what the developers have left of the farm, her dad is drinking too much, her mother has taken to putting mirrors in the garden to double the appearance of her efforts, and her brother Robert is on the verge of failing high school and would really like some advice from his preoccupied sister. Tassie, however, is completely caught up with her surrogate family.

At times as astringent as paint thinner – and just as effective at cutting through goop – “A Gate at the Stairs” is also incisively funny in a way that you don’t see so often in an era dominated by Judd Apatow imitators. And while the first two-thirds of the book are witty and endearing in a meandering, seemingly aimless way, those pleasant paths are leading toward a guided tour of grief. Readers who want writers to get to the point, be warned: Moore’s got one, and it’s sharp enough to drive right through your heart.


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